By Gigi Kreibich
Last month, my father was working at his job as a contractor and noticed one of his clients had horses. They got to talking and, like all horse women, the client enthusiastically began talking about her beloved herd. When my father replied that his daughter rode dressage, he was met with the typical question of what type of horse his daughter rode. After years of listening to me proclaim with pride how much I loved the breed, my father, who knows nothing about horses, was ready with his answer. He replied with the gusto of a man on Jeopardy, “She has a Morgan!”. The response he got was “Oh that’s an unusual choice for that sport. Morgans aren’t known to be good at dressage”. When my father and I saw each other the next day he asked me why Morgans were not known to be good at dressage. It opened up a great conversation that I wish was commonplace in the dressage community. What is it that makes a great dressage horse? What is it that turns an average pair with moderate capability into a dynamic and competitive team?
When people think of Morgans they often think of graceful carriage horses, sparkling western pleasure horses, or elegant saddle seat mounts that look like they pranced right off an illuminated carousel. Few would think of dressage. While their smaller, compact size may be off-putting to some riders, Morgans have long been known for being hearty, healthy, and robust little horses, with refined movement and a talent for versatility. They make wonderful additions to families and lesson programs. While the community of Morgan lovers in the sport horse world is small, you will find people who choose Morgans as their breed of choice to be strong and passionate about their wonderful experiences with the breed. Riders are quick to note how the little horses offer heart, willingness, and trainability that allows many the chance to hone their skills and train up the levels in an affordable, healthy, and typically very safe and sane package.
My journey with the Morgan breed began in my childhood on a small Morgan Horse farm. Far detached from the dressage world, this farm ran a small breeding and lesson program with only 15 horses and frequented Morgan Breed shows, where the students showed Hunt Seat, Western, and Saddle Seat. I grew up mucking out stalls and grooming horses for the farm’s lesson and camp program in exchange for riding time, and found myself quickly falling in love with the breed while caring for the small herd of horses in the Minnesota winters. Over the years my fondness for these special horses never waivered.
My first and only horse came to me through a series of incredibly lucky and unlikely events. For anyone who was ever a fan of the classic horse girl book/movie National Velvet, you might read this and notice the shocking similarities. At the age of twelve all I wanted to do was eat, sleep, and breathe horses. I had that good sticky seat that came with being a kid with no self preservation, who would ride anything. Driven by my unwavering obsession, and powered with major FOMO (fear of missing out), I had found myself at a local Morgan Show that was being held as a fundraiser for our local Morgan Horse Breeders Association. The show was over the Independence Day weekend, because nothing says American Independence quite like putting makeup on a horse, packing your whole barn up, and moving it to a new location for 3 days, just to pack it up and move it all back. All of my barn mates and I had parents who were out of town enjoying more traditional festivities. I was grooming for the weekend while my friends were showing, and we had set up shop with blow up air mattresses propped up on bales of hay in the stalls next to the horses. Between the horse show festivities, shenanigans, and bonfire ghost stories, all supervised by our long suffering but incredibly committed trainer who probably aged a year for every hour she was in charge of wrangling eight kids between the ages of 12 – 16, we were living the teenage horse girl dream. As this show was a fundraiser for the local breeder’s association, in addition to riding classes it featured a large raffle, of which two of the prizes were young Morgan fillies donated by various farms. Tickets were $5 and my parents had given me $20 for concessions for the weekend. After briefly asking permission on the phone and getting the ok (because no one ever wins those things), let’s just say not many concessions were purchased that weekend.
DBG Pebbles was my childhood dream pony. With a shiny chestnut coat, a flaxen tail, chrome to spare, and soft nickers every time you went down the barn aisle, I was smitten. The raffle came and went, and twelve year old me was very sad when the drawing didn’t come up with my name. While my poor father was driving me home, we got a call from my trainer who asked to speak with him in private. Turns out, the girl that won the raffle did not want another horse and they drew again, and my number came up. After some private deliberating my parents agreed to take the yearling. Filled with joy and the unique gusto found in tween girls when they really want something, I dedicated myself to reading books and taking weekly lessons to raise and train my new horse. We competed in 4-H training project, and I was filled with the pride of parents watching a pee-wee soccer game at every milestone my horse and I hit. There is something about raising and starting a horse that is always special. Getting the privilege to be all the firsts for a young horse, to see them develop into a successful and reliable mount, was a once in a lifetime experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.
My journey into the world of dressage began many years after I had switched to a Morgan barn with a larger program. At the time I was boarding at a barn that was split half and half between a Morgan program and a dressage program. When my Morgan trainer decided to pack up and move out of state, I was faced with a choice: find a new barn or switch disciplines. I decided to give dressage a try, and it was game over from there. It was challenging in a way I had never experienced before, with endless room for improvement, a training scale that you could spend a lifetime trying to master, and a scoring system that would let you compete for your individual best. I had found my sport.
As time went on, I had little desire for actual competition. I enjoyed popping into shows here and there for feedback, but at my core I had a love for my favorite breed, a deep love for my specific horse, and I found great fulfillment trying everything and spending long quiet afternoons with my heart horse. When it was time for me to graduate high school and go to college, I had one requirement: A school where I could board my horse nearby and keep riding, with a strong equestrian community to make horse friends. When looking at William Woods University my family and I accidentally stumbled upon Stephens College, an all women’s school with a long history of equestrian studies. When it was time to go, we packed all my college dorm supplies in the empty half of our tiny steel two horse straight load trailer, my horse in the other, and set off from Minnesota to Missouri with the plan to not return until I had a diploma.
As much as we try to plan for the future, life has a funny way of never going according to plan. In between my junior and senior year of college my health took a turn. After a long and lengthy diagnostic process, I was diagnosed with a progressive metabolic bone disease that came with several comorbid conditions that made daily living a struggle. I became a wheelchair user, and began treatment for bone disease. I graduated college in a wheelchair, and moved back home to Minnesota to continue the long healing process.
I continued to ride regularly (albeit a lot slower), and horses continued to be both my grounding force and the best physical therapy. My mare transitioned beautifully into a para- dressage horse. With enough spice to be competitive, but enough sensitivity and steadiness to be safe for my brittle bones, she continued to be exactly what I needed when I needed her. I will be grateful to my horse for adapting and loving me all those years no matter what shape my body was in when I came to the barn. As someone with a lifelong enthusiasm for Morgans, I had no idea those special characteristics would work their magic and be the key to getting my life back.
Five years later, my health has stabilized, and although there are many things that will remain challenging for the rest of my life, I am very happy to be back to riding almost every day, and setting goals for the future. My mare and I now compete in mainstream USDF competitions at Third Level, and recently got our last score for our USDF Bronze Medal. We were awarded a training grant from Challenged Athletes Foundation in both 2021 and 2022 for Para-Dressage and, at present, our goal is to continue to work on our Third Level tests and eventually get the scores for our USDF Silver Medal. While life has taught me that you can never truly predict what tomorrow will bring, I’ll always wake up, look out, and be grateful for everything my horse has taught me and given me, and I’ll always be proud of how far we’ve come. What started out as a twelve-year-old girl on a $5 pony resulted in one incredible team.